Tag Archives: Poverty

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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Rating- A / Even though it seems fairly tame by today’s standards in terms of violence, language, and sexual content, it’s easy to imagine Midnight Cowboy making waves in 1969. Both controversial and extremely daring for it’s time, the film, based on the novel of the same title by Leo James Herlihy, deals with hot-button issues such as prostitution, rape, homosexuality, and childhood sexual abuse. And it transcends the constraints of time and setting to tell an incredible story of innocence lost and outcasts eking out a hardscrabble urban existence that is both archetypal and vitally original. Continue reading Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Holy shit. This film is so… fucking… bleak. But it is a must watch for people who think Ray Winstone can’t act. Keep the rubbish in the trash bin, Britain. And don’t under any circumstances let Raymond (Winstone) near your unborn baby. Rage, alcoholism. The relentlessly grim cycle of domestic violence passing from one generation to the next. This drama takes place in the South London projects, but it is by no means confined to that setting. It’s universal, and it won’t stop unless women stop settling for men who beat the shit out of them.

Raymond (Ray Winstone) and Mark (Jamie Foreman) are two South London bros who are also both pretty horrible people. They hang out in Ray’s apartment, drink and drink, and talk shit. Oh yeah, and Ray occasionally takes enough time off drinking and talking shit to beat his wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke) senseless. Ray’s also a father to a little girl (Leah FItzgerald,) and the kid is all too often a witness to Mommy getting her ass handed to her. Ray’s subhuman, a screaming, emotionally impotent cretin, but he thinks he gets off free because he’s all tormented and complex and shit. To listen to his talks with his friend puts you in mind of witnessing something scintillatingly grotesque, like the dietary habits of wild animals.

Valerie has an exhausted mother, Janet (Laila Morse) and a spirited grandmother (Edna Dore) who doesn’t take bunk from anybody, even when Ray threatens to knock the geriatric old bird out cold. She also has a brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles,) who’s slightly more likable than the other men, mostly because he doesn’t talk much, and also because he’s not a violent criminal or consciously cruel as much as a weak and pathetic loser. Billy also has a methamphetamine habit he supports by stealing and mooching off his mother.

The five characters converge throughout this practically plotless Brit drama, not as much living as surviving, and it soon becomes clear that something’s going to have to give before all fucking hell breaks lose. Because this life they’re living is not as much of a life as a fox trap where they’re chewing their collective leg off.

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The action feels real, like all the best British realism films. The conversations sound like real conversations, and even though the number of curse words is staggering (if you were offended by the bad language in my review, trust me, this isn’t the movie for you) they don’t seem excessive in the context of the film. Writer/director Gary Oldman (yes, that Gary Oldman) has an ear for dialogue, the meaningless yammering bullshit people talk, and the lies people tell themselves to get through the day. Except in his adept hands, the rambling dialogue becomes something really special. Even when Billy’s tattooed hooligan friend Danny (Steve Sweeney) lovingly recites dialogue from “Apocalypse Now” while blitzed out of his mind, the scene has a certain gravity to it, almost touching. It feels like you are seeing something important, something only you are meant to see.

There are a handful of truly amazing scenes in this film, moments so hardcore you forget to breathe, when you see what these fucked-up people’s lives are really about. Several of these involve Ray Winstone monologues, particularly the one about his father where we find out what the title of the movie pertains to. Tight, focused acting there. The kind that takes raw talent. One of the scenes that sticks out to me is the one where Janet, defeated, takes Billy to pick up meth from his dealer. She sits and watches him as he sits in the back of the van doing the drugs,  his expression the shallow smile of a satisfied addict, her’s of exhaustion and resignation.

That, to me, is the epitome of desperation. Watching your son shoot up with the crap that you provide? The thing is, nobody wants to be an enabler to their own kid. Nobody wants to be a beaten wife. But in an absence of hope, people settle for so much less than they could be; so much less than they deserve. It’s an ugly cycle, one that is both self-perpetuating and never-ending.

The only thing that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending this movie is the ending. The whole thing is just bizarre. Whether it’s a happy ending or another plunge into the Hellish abyss of domestic violence, who can tell? I’ll settle for the latter. Regardless, it just made me mad. “Nil By Mouth” is no more a popcorn  movie than a film by Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier is. However, if you like hyper-realistic kitchen sink dramas with amazing actors, this is the movie for you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, the level of domestic violence is daunting. This is a harrowing look at people with nothing left to lose, people for which violence is not a distant thing to dread but an inevitable side effect of being alive.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Esteemed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou chronicles her life from lonely, isolated black girlhood to sexual awakening and teen motherhood in this sad, poetic true-life account. Little Maya never believed much in her own self-worth, and racism was as rampant in the small community of Stamps, Arkansas, that she lived in with her Grandmama and disabled Uncle Willie as the wrenching poverty of both blacks and whites. Her unwavering sense of fatalism  forced her into the belief that she would live a brief, harsh life of subjugation before dying in a crazy dramatic way (in this sense, she is more like the modern youngster than she might think.)

But Maya (AKA Marguerite) had a  way to escape her tough circumstances- her love of books and writing, which kept her spirit strong and her mind sharp in the face of myriad staggering adversities. Through prejudice, sexual abuse, and eventually teen pregnancy, Maya not only survived, but slowly developed her sense of self and the belief that she and the African-American race deserved better than what they had been given.

Good writing is a prerequisite in an autobiography, but it also helps to have an interesting story that will grab the reader’s interest. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has both. Angelou retreats so far into the mind of her younger self that the book seems free of Angelou’s adult beliefs and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how she felt about a situation at the time she wrote the book. Maya Angelou has had a fascinating, though frequently tragic life, and the prose she incorporates into the book rolls off the tongue like sweet honey.

I found the author’s own personal feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness following her rape at age eight at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend particularly heart-wrenching. No one should ever have to feel guilty for a act of sexual violence done unto them. But I was thrilled when Mr. Freeman (the name of the bottom-feeding pederast in question) was rubbed out by Maya’s mafioso relatives. Sweet justice! Of course, it would have been better if the abuse hadn’t occurred at all, but the killing of the child rapist gave me pleasure in an mostly bleak and depressing book.

The racism portrayed within these pages is shocking (the white dentist achieving a particular low,) but it makes the reader think about how far we’ve come as a society. Nowadays if someone cared to indulge in a ‘jigaboo walks into a bar’ joke they would be greeted by most with moral outrage and unlaughing silence. Back then racism wasn’t just a mindset- it was a way of life. People had never considered that blacks could be anything more than their drastically inferior dark-skinned servants,  and in many places- including the South- thinking that there might be an alternative to prejudice and hate was all too much for these white hicks to take in.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ended far too abruptly. It concluded on a hopeful note, but at the same time it just kind of left me hanging. It’s funny, a lot of the behavior exhibited by Maya’s most well-regarded relatives would be considered child abuse by today’s standards.

She just kind of laughs countless whippings and frankly psychotic behavior (for instance her stuttering Uncle Willie  threatening to burn her and her brother Bailey on the stove) off, but nowadays that kind of acting out by unhinged grown-ups would now be followed by a visit by CPS. People talk about the ‘good old days,’ where kids were hard-working and respectful and everything was more wholesome, but were the old days really that great? This book, and others, answer my question with an emphatic no.

If you like kind of slow books that love each word onto paper, rather than simply writing them in the way of popular writers, you’ll adore Angelou’s precisely, and gorgeously written memoir. And, grim as it is, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is not without it’s humor. “Preach it, Brother Thomas!” In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death the world lost a great literary voice. She brings barbed honesty and haunting lyricism into what could have been a standard coming-of-age narrative.

Electricity by Ray Robinson

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Lily O’Connor’s neurology is a wild, untamed beast that knocks her on her face time and again. Afflicted with epilepsy, Lily knows the condition is more than the general public believes it be, and she determined to live as normal a life with the condition as possible. Saddled with a rough (and I mean rough) family (her mother is entirely to blame in causing the injury that led to her disorder, in an act too ghastly to mention,) Lily has learned to hide the hurt away, armed with a misanthropic wit. But the death of her beastly mother, grouped with the arrival of her gambler brother and the mystery of another sibling’s disappearance, shakes up Lily’s life in ways she never could have imagined and sends her on a quest for reconciliation on the dirty, chaotic streets of London.

So, apparently this is a movie now. It’s hard to picture how a film adaptation would work, to be honest. Electricity is a otherworldly experience, an journey through the senses shedding light on a condition no one would wish on themselves or their loved ones. How will a movie give us such an unyielding look into this woman’s mind? How will a movie explain how the seizures feel? But the miracle of this novel is that Lily O’Connor is so much more than her disability.

She’s tough, complicated, seriously flawed but fundamentally decent. The strength of Lily’s character ensures that Electricity will not a textbook slog through issues of disability and dignity. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read so much onomatopoeia in one book. The book has an interesting feminine perspective on sexuality, as well as a heartbreaking take on sexual abuse (what if I didn’t fight back! What if I liked it?)

Lily believed she was in love with her mother’s boyfriend when she was about nine years old, and appreciated the attention in a time when she was all too often ignored and overlooked. But does that make it any better? Of course not. Sexual misconduct with a preteen is abuse whether or not the child thinks they enjoy it or not. In a way, Lily has to move past her own feelings and perceptions about the event just as much as she has to move past the abuse itself.

Lily is often a hard character to like. But you can’t hate her. You just can’t. She’s too vulnerable and damaged and real for that. However, the circumstances of her upbringing seemed a little too dire at times. That coupled with her truly horrific experience with men (only her wig-donning mentor, Al, emerges unscathed) makes Electricity a sometimes disturbing read. Lily is an often sexually ambiguous character; she reports to enjoy sex with men (although she can’t climax,) while her less-than-sisterly affections for her lesbian buddy Mel makes the reader wonder what side of the fence she’s really on.

The only parts of the book I felt were lacking were the sex scenes between Lily and her boyfriend, Dave. Here we are subjected to analogies such as “He licked my breasts like lollipops” that fall short on insight into a woman’s experience of sex. They were a little corny, to be frank. They didn’t quite fit in the otherwise smooth, flawless jigsaw puzzle that was this novel. Mostly, what stands out in Electricity was the close inside view of a misunderstood condition and Lily’s unique, dialect- and profanity-salted voice. Lyrical yet not tweedy, Electricity is a engrossing read.

American Heart (1992)

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Cinematic lessons on how NOT to parent don’t come much wiser or more dire than the portrayal of Jeff Bridges’ boozy, wildly irresponsible father in “American Heart,” director Martin Bell’s bleak narrative film debut. The deadbeat dad in question is Jack (Jeff Bridges,) ex-convict on parole and absentee father of troubled 14-year-old Nick (Edward Furlong.)

Jack really doesn’t want much to do with his jaded yet impressionable teen son, but Nick butts into Jack’s life after Jack is released from prison, where he has been incarcerated for bank robbing. Jack aspires to make an honest living, but raising Nick  isn’t part of the plan- and Nick soon falls in with a group of disaffected punk kids, including child prostitute Molly (Tracey Kapisky.)

Jack is helpless, hopeless, incompetent at truly being a father but capable of the persistent wish for his son to do better… to not screw his life up as badly as his old man. As Nick sinks deeply into questionable company and petty crime, Jack makes one last effort to be a father not worth being ashamed of.

There’s an admirable amount of development of Jack and Nick’s characters throughout the film. Initially, Jack came of as a pathetic loser (the first thing that occurred to me while watching him- uncharitably- was ‘you can take the trash out of the trailer, but you can’t take the trailer out of the trash’) but you get a sense by a certain point in the movie that he’s still a mess but he’s… well, trying, maybe not always succeeding, but making an actual effort all the same.

In many ways “American Heart” is a doomed (platonic) love story between father and son. Theirs is a complicated, fraught, relationship, but touched by love nonetheless. The romantic relationship between Jack and a woman who wrote to him in prison who he fancies (Lucinda Jenney) is a featured plotline but it seems insignificant compared to the meat and bones of the story- Nick and Jack’s relationship as Jack struggles to make ends meet washing windows in Urban Seattle.

I think this is now my favorite Jeff Bridges role (yes, it even beats out his part in “The Big Lebowski,” an overrated movie if there ever was one.) He is understated and effective in this movie, and Edward Furlong backs him up nicely as his frustrated teenage son. Although “American Heart” is grimy and tragic, it also feels very real to a large extent. It sheds light on a side of life many people experience, and which the comfortably middle class and reasonably functional shudder to think of or even vicariously find fascination in.

If there’s any fault to be found in this movie, it’s in the relentlessly grim depiction of just about everything. But that’s okay, because it works, but moviegoers should know this isn’t a saccharine drama where a father and son bond to a sappy orchestral soundtrack. It’s rough. It’s raw and it stings like a fresh wound. But on the upside, when Nick makes it to adulthood, if he makes it at all, I see a best-selling tell-all memoir in his imminent future. All that childhood pain has to make it to some use, I figure.

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Into the West (1992)

Although it may be a little intense for young tykes due to its alcoholism, poverty, and prejudice themes, “Into the West” is an overall charming and appealing family film with a compelling storyline. It’s plot is hugely unbelievable (two Irish lads rescue their magnificent white horse from an abusive owner and ride across Ireland evading the authorities at every turn,) but something about this story touched a warm fuzzy place in my heart.

Gabriel Byrne plays the alcoholic father of two young boys, Ossie and Tito (Ciarán Fitzgerald and Rúaidhrí Conroy,) who live with their perpetually drunk dad in a squalid Irish tenement building. The boy’s grandfather (David Kelly) is the proud owner of Tir Na Nog, a beautiful white horse. When Tito and Ossie decide to smuggle Tir Na Nog into the apartment (not an easy feat considering the tiny size of the place is barely livable for a family of three,) the police confiscate the horse and give him to a shady and rich hobbyist.

The duo track down the horse-owner and steal back the steed, riding him across the hills and fields of Ireland and getting into all sorts of trouble along the way. Meanwhile, their father John gets back in touch with his gypsy heritage and reconnects with Kathleen (Ellen Barkin,) an old friend in an attempt to track his sons.

John is a interestingly compelling and three-dimensional character- sometimes volatile, sometimes violent, he loves his sons but constantly manages to disappoint them. He pressures the illiterate oldest (Tito) to learn to read because as it so happens, he cannot. Tito does not appreciate the fact that his father is trying to do what is best for him, and he and his brother believe John does not love them. Gabriel Byrne plays John as occasionally heroic, sometimes pathetic, but never as a blunt, angry stereotype.

There are fantasy elements considering the almost supernatural majesty of the horse, but they never take over the human element of the story, which is closer to British Social Realism than director Mike Newell’s later J.K. Rowling adaptation “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” While “Goblet of Fire” is my favorite Harry Potter adaptation, “Into the West” is a little more low-key, more about growing up and learning to let go that sorcery and magic.

There are relevant social commentary (reflected by the prejudice towards the ‘travelers,’ the pressure of impoverished conditions, and the less-than-kosher treatment of the horse by the rich horse breeder,) and the acting is pretty strong overall, especially by Gabriel Byrne and the oldest son Rúaidhrí Conroy, although the performance by Ciarán Fitzgerald (Ossie) can be a little tiresome.

Overall, “Into the West” is a good kid’s movie with a lot of heart. Consider this a a superior alternative for teens and tweens to the the “Twilight” films and “Alvin and the Chipmunks- The Squeakquel” (God help me.) It is a rarity-  strong and underrated family film that remains interesting after you turn ten. Worth watching for kids and adults alike.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Cynics have called this film ‘predictable,’ but I loved it. Touching, character-driven, and inspirational, “Akeelah and the Bee” wins A’s from me. It reminds me of when I participated in spelling bees as a child. I was pretty good, but I never made it to the Nationals. To see young Akeelah do so, despite her impoverished background, is very moving.

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is an 11-year-old, highly intelligent black girl who lives in an Los Angeles urban community with few options. She shows an aptitude for spelling, but is not confident in her abilities. When her teacher notes that Akeelah is the smartest student in the class but seriously lacks motivation, she gives her a flyer for the school spelling bee.

Well, Akeelah breezes through that, and she is placed under the stern watch of Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne,) a former Harvard scholar haunted by tragic events in his past. Larabee is one those blokes who makes it almost impossible to please him, and Akeelah and he are initially at odds.

Akeelah finds a true friend and prepubescent love interest in fellow speller Javier (J.R. Villarreal)
and butts heads with her beautiful but stubborn mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett.) Meanwhile, she grieves for her dead father (played in flashbacks by Wolfgang Bodison) and worries for her brother Derrick-T (Eddie Steeples,)  who has taken up with Gangsta wannabees.

Her military brother Devon (Lee Thompson Young) loves her and supports her, encouraging her fledgling dreams to take flight. Gradually, however, she captures the interest of an entire community. The first thing you might notice about “Akeelah and the Bee” is the undeniable stage presence of Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah.

This young girl has warmth and talent to spare. Laurence Fishbourne lends a lot of credibility to his character as Dr. Larabee who starts out not liking Akeelah much at all and gradually warms up to the girl’s charms. Angela Basset is also very believable as Akeelah’s deeply tired mother, who is frankly expecting to see her daughter flunk the spelling bee.

The characters are really well-written; it’s not really movie with villains, per se, but with different character
components who act and react with each other. The movie does not ignore the disturbing or sad elements (Akeelah’s dad is killed before the movie begins in a gangland shooting) but it makes them more manageable
somehow.

I first saw this movie when I was a kid and was happy to see it again. My opinion had not changed- it is still a very good movie. “Akeelah and the Bee” has a certain innocence without being naive and handles some troubling themes without forgetting to let the sunlight in.

It is a very special movie that should be appreciated by kids eight and up (those who are above the “Air Buddies” developmental stage, that is) and it will make kids and adults alike root for Akeelah, with all her grit and her might, against staggering adversity.

Kisses (2008)

First, ignore the critic on the front cover who dubs “Kisses” ‘irresistibly heartwarming.’ This is a dark, gritty drama that pulls no punches in it’s depiction of incredibly resilient Irish youngsters living lives of squalor and abuse.

11-year-old Kylie and Dylan are underprivileged kids who fancy themselves a couple. Dylan is abused by his father, a volatile alcoholic, while Kylie is at the mercy of her unscrupulous Uncle Morris.

One Christmas, the kids run away (after Dylan has a unusually bad fight with his father) and head for Dublin, where they hope to stay with Dylan’s runaway brother. On their journey, they make confessions, share secrets, and try to survive in a city that swallows up it’s weakest and offers little hope to two children trying to get by.

“Kisses” starts out in black-and-white, then brightens into sumptuous color about halfway through as Dylan and Kylie spend time with Dublin eccentrics and survive several terrifying ordeals.

The children are the center of the movie, and they both give very good performances. I think Kelly O’Neill as Kylie really stood out with her touching performance, I see great things in this girl’s future.

I was floored by how real this movie felt- with no pat resolutions for our troubled protagonists. I will admit that the part with Kylie and Dylan kissing made me very uncomfortable… frankly I don’t think 12-year-old kids should be kissing like that in front of a camera, but I digress.

“Kisses” establishes itself as one of the best films centering around the younger generation, and the two leads’ friendship and tentative romance existing among disgustingly dysfunctional adults will warm your heart.

Writer/directer Lance Daly proves himself to be a enormously talented filmmaker. “Kisses” is an astonishing debut, and I hope that it is not forgotten in the years that follow among superfluous remakes and summer blockbusters.

Devoured (2013)

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The first time I saw “Devoured” I loved it and was fully prepared to write a rave review, but the second time I was a little less enamored. I still think the film invokes a genuine feeling of dread and has a terrific lead performance by leading lady Marta Milans, but it also occasionally utilizes worn horror tropes and just takes a little too long to get itself going.

The unnamed heroine is a Latina immigrant who seems to be going insane… but is she? The woman dreams of saving up enough money to pay for surgery for her extremely ill son, who still lives in Mexico with his grandmother. She also aspires to bring the boy and her mom to the states to live with her. She struggles to make ends meet and accomplish her goal working in a little restaurant in the city.

But something is amiss. Doors slam, figures prowl, her antagonistic boss nettles, and most of the men take a purely physical or even predatory interest in our heroine. Spooky things seem to happen when she goes into the basement of the restaurant. And what exactly is behind the unopened door in the back of the cellar?

We can’t help but root for our heroine, despite her less-than-charitable attitude toward the upper-middle class customers who frequent the restaurant. She obviously would do anything for her son. But is she the woman she seems to be? And are her visions figments of an overactive psyche, or something more sinister?

“Devoured” maintains a palpable sense of unease, boosted by a powerful performance by Marta Milans. You can genuinely feel Milan’s anxiety and fear as she walks the unfamiliar streets of the unforgiving urban city in which she dwells. Hopefully MIlans will draw attention to herself in the moviemaking world with this film and will get some more roles soon. She’s attractive, which doesn’t hurt.

There are a few too many claustrophobic close-ups of foods being prepared and chopped in this flick.  It works for a certain length of time (and is perhaps, like the title, and commentary on American decadence,) but after a while seem like filler. Bruno Gunn lends a certain creditability as a guy who befriends the lead and the only man in the movie whose not a total scumbucket.

“Devoured” is an effective low budget horror who mysteries and secrets lead to a surprisingly innovative twist ending. It comes down to this… if you can find it, see it, and pay no heed to the one-star reviews circulating around the internet. It is slow, maybe to a fault at moments, but its got verve and heart and the director obviously knows what he’s doing. If his first narrative feature holds this much promise, God knows what kind of cool shit he’ll come up with for his next movie. I’m personally excited for him. Maybe, after seeing this clever little chiller, you will be too.

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24 7: Twenty Four Seven (1997)


Shane Meadows is one of my top favorite filmmakers, so although “Twenty Four Seven” is not bad at all, it’s a bit of a disappointment with my expectations set so high. It is a well-intentioned independent feature featuring Meadows’ trademark working-class Brits, and sporting a slightly confusing ending. It lacks Meadows’ usual intensity, and although it has a pretty decent story to tell, I often found myself getting distracted.

Good-natured and dedicated, Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) starts a boxing club to bring focus and passion to the kids in his lower-class town’s lives. The kids, who have little to do but mingle and get into trouble, are initially wary of Darcy’s enthusiasm, but eventually they find that boxing is a good outlet for their rage and frustration.

Darcy tries to provide guidance to the disaffected working-class blokes in his neighborhood, including abused teenager Tim (Danny Nussbaum,) sadsack drug addict Fagash (Mat Hand,) and a lonely fat kid uncharitably dubbed ‘Tonka’ (James Corden,) but finds himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the town’s limited options.

When Darcy borrows stolen money to help set up his boxing club, I expected something to come of it, but nothing really comes of the plot thread. I liked Darcy, Tonka, and Tim but didn’t find the characters as compelling as in some of Shane Meadows’ other films, like “A Room for Romeo Brass,” a film I gave 5/5 stars to.

The more I thought about it, the more I had problems with the ending, which I found increasingly unclear. What exactly happened to a certain despicable character, and are we supposed to believe that that certain someone would have a road to Damascus and show up at the funeral at the end? Pfft.

Nevertheless, Bob Hoskins did a good job playing a compelling character, and Shane Meadows’ potential was evident from early on. The home-video footage of the young boy at the beginning was not really crucial to the plot, but I liked it anyway as it fit the mood of the scene.

I would only really recommend this movie to Shane Meadows fans who are curious how his career progressed over the years. It was worth watching once, definitely. The absence of Paddy Considine (“Dead Man’s Shoes”) or Stephen Graham (“This is England”) was disappointing, but Bob Hoskins did a good job as the idealistic protagonist. An interesting movie, if not exactly fulfilling.